Gesta Romanorum Criticism - Essay

Charles Swan (essay date 1824)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Swan, Charles. Introduction to “Gesta Romanorum”: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; Invented by the Monks as a Fireside Recreation, and Commonly Applied in Their Discourses from the Pulpit: Whence the Most Celebrated of Our Own Poets and Others, from the Earliest Times Have Extracted Their Plots, translated by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, pp. xxx-xxxiv. London: George Bell and Sons, 1877.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1824, Swan, the first translator of the complete Gesta Romanorum into English, offers a brief history of the work.]

I now hasten to the Gesta Romanorum; and purpose giving a brief outline of its history, with a notice of certain stories which, without reference to their own individual merit, have been raised into higher importance by furnishing the groundwork of many popular dramas. I shall also take occasion to offer a few remarks upon the translation now before the public, elucidatory of certain points which seem to require explanation.

The Gesta Romanorum was one of the most applauded compilations of the Middle Ages. The method of instructing by fables is a practice of remote antiquity; and has always been attended with very considerable benefit. Its great popularity encouraged the monks to adopt this medium, not only for the sake of illustrating their discourses, but of making a more durable impression upon the minds of their illiterate auditors. An abstract argument, or logical deduction (had they been capable of supplying it), would operate but faintly upon intellects rendered even more obtuse by the rude nature of their customary occupations; while, on the other hand, an apposite story would arouse attention, and stimulate that blind and uninquiring devotion, which is so remarkably characteristic of the Middle Ages.

The work under consideration is compiled from old Latin chronicles of Roman, or rather, as Mr. Warton and Mr. Douce think, of German invention. But this idea, with all submission, derives little corroborative evidence from fact. There is one story, and I believe, but one, which gives any countenance to it. That a few are extracted from German authors (who may not, after all, be the inventors) is no more proof that the compiler was a German, than that, because some stories are found in the Roman annals, the whole book was the production of a Latin writer.

Oriental, legendary, and classical fables, heightened by circumstances of a strong romantic cast, form the basis of this singular composition. But the authorities cited for classical allusions are usually of the lower order. Valerius, Maximus, Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, Pliny, Seneca, Boethius, and occasionally Ovid, are introduced; but they do not always contain the relation which they are intended to substantiate; and it is invariably much disguised and altered. The oriental apologues are sometimes from the romance of Baarlam and Josaphat, and in several instances from a Latin work entitled, De Clericali Disciplina, attributed to Petrus Alphonsus, a converted Jew, godson to Alphonsus I. of Arragon, after whom he was named. There is an analysis of it by Mr. Douce inserted in Mr. Ellis's Specimens of Early English Romances. According to the former of these gentlemen, two productions bearing the title of Gesta Romanorum, and totally distinct from each other, exist. I confess I see no good reason for the assertion. I take the later work to be the same as its predecessor, with a few additions, not so considerable by any means as Mr. Douce imagines.1 This I shall show, by and by. Of the present performance, though it purports to relate the Gests of the Romans, there is little that corresponds with the title. On the contrary, it comprehends “a multitude of narratives, either not historical, or in another respect, such as are totally unconnected with the Roman people, or perhaps the most preposterous misrepresentations of their history. To cover this deviation from the promised plan, which, by introducing a more ample variety of matter, has contributed to increase the reader's entertainment, our collector has taken care to preface almost every story with the name or reign of a Roman emperor; who, at the same time, is often a monarch that never existed, and who seldom, whether real or supposititious, has any concern with the circumstances of the narrative.”2

The influence which this work has had on English poetry is not the least surprising fact connected with it. Not only the earlier writers of our country—Gower, Chaucer, Lydgate, Occleve, &c.—have...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)

Wynnard Hooper (essay date 1877)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hooper, Wynnard. Preface to “Gesta Romanorum”: or, Entertaining Moral Stories; Invented by the Monks as a Fireside Recreation, and Commonly Applied in Their Discourses from the Pulpit: Whence the Most Celebrated of Our Own Poets and Others, from the Earliest Times Have Extracted Their Plots, translated by Charles Swan, revised by Wynnard Hooper, pp. iii-xiv. London: George Bell and Sons, 1877.

[In the following excerpt, Hooper discusses the textual history of the Gesta Romanorum.]

It is somewhat remarkable that, in spite of the great interest attaching to the Gesta Romanorum, as the most popular story book of the Middle Ages, and as the source of...

(The entire section is 2818 words.)

Herbert F. Schwarz (essay date 1919)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Herbert F. “John Fletcher and the Gesta Romanorum.Modern Language Notes 34, no. 3 (March 1919): 146-49.

[In the following essay, Schwarz argues that Renaissance dramatist John Fletcher used episodes from the Gesta Romanorum in several plays he helped to write.]

Some years ago I pointed out (Mod. Lang. Notes XXIV, 76-77) the fact that the dénouement (Act V, sc. 4) of The Queen of Corinth by Fletcher, Massinger, and Field is derived from the tale of the two maidens and their seducer found in the Gesta Romanorum (Early English Text Society, Extra Series 33, p. 440). This story presents the rival claims of two...

(The entire section is 1325 words.)

Ella Bourne (essay date 1923)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bourne, Ella. “Classical Elements in The Gesta Romanorum.” In Vassar Medieval Studies, edited by Christabel Forsyth Fiske, pp. 345-76. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1923.

[In the essay below, Bourne examines the themes and sources of a number of tales in the Gesta Romanorum.]

The popularity of the Gesta Romanorum during the Middle Ages is abundantly shown by the enormous number of manuscripts which are still to be found in the libraries of England and of continental Europe. Its importance for the history of literature, particularly since the thirteenth century, can be no less clearly seen by a glance at the tables at the end of Oesterley's...

(The entire section is 11253 words.)

Eleanor Beatrice Miller (essay date 1949)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Eleanor Beatrice. “The Gesta Romanorum.” In “Romance Elements in the Gesta Romanorum. Master's thesis, pp. 1-24, University of Vermont, 1949.

[In the following essay, Miller surveys the characteristics, sources, and influences of the Gesta Romanorum.]


The Gesta Romanorum was one of the most popular collections of moralized stories in the Middle Ages. The stories do not concern Roman history, as the title might indicate, although many of them come from classical sources. The framework, if the tenuous connection which unites the stories may be called that, is simply the...

(The entire section is 5878 words.)

Roger J. Trienens (essay date 1954)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Trienens, Roger J. “The Symbolic Cloud in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 5, no. 2 (spring 1954): 211-13.

[In the following essay, Trienens traces the relationship of the cloud-shaped whale—which Hamlet points out to Polonius– in Hamlet to the Gesta Romanorum's depiction of the whale as a signifier of lust.]

When Polonius informs Hamlet of the Queen's urgent desire to see him, Hamlet feigns madness and points to the sky:

Do you see that cloud that's almost in shape like a camel?
By the mass, and it's like a camel, indeed.

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

Beryl Smalley (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Smalley, Beryl. “Robert Holcot.” In English Friars and Antiquity in the Early Fourteenth Century, pp. 144-46, 183. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Smalley argues that many of the entries in the Gesta Romanorum were derived from a book of exempla for sermons by the fourteenth-century preacher and teacher Robert Holcot.]

The title of the collection [of Sermons by Robert Holcot from around 1334, called] ‘Sermons for Sundays and weekdays’, does not mean that each Sunday and weekday has its sermon. Christmas Day, the Epiphany, Easter Sunday and Sundays 8-17 after Trinity Sunday are omitted. Yet the feast of the...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)

Oscar Maurer (essay date 1964)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Maurer, Oscar. “William Morris and Gesta Romanorum.” In Studies in Language, Literature, and Culture of the Middle Ages and Later, edited by E. Bagby Atwood and Archibald A. Hill, pp. 367-81. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, Maurer examines how William Morris used tales from the Gesta Romanorum in his The Earthly Paradise.]

“When you are using an old story,” Morris once observed, “read it through, then shut the book and write it in your own way.” This was his practice, especially to be seen in the composition of the medieval tales in The Earthly Paradise. What happens after he has “shut the...

(The entire section is 6414 words.)

Stanley J. Kahrl (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Kahrl, Stanley J. “The Medieval Origins of the Sixteenth-Century Jest-Books.” Studies in the Renaissance, 13 (1966): 166-83.

[In the following essay, Kahrl links sixteenth-century jest-books to the Gesta Romanorum, comparing the tales and exempla appearing in those books with tales in the Gesta Romanorum and similar collections.]

Saynt Bede tellis in ‘Gestis Anglorum’ how, when Englond was oute of þe belefe, þe pope sente in-to it to preche a bisshop þat was a passyng sutell clerk, and a well-letterd; and he vsid so mekull soteltie and strange saying in his sermons, þat his prechyng owder litle profettid or...

(The entire section is 8120 words.)

Joseph Albert Mosher (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Mosher, Joseph Albert. “The Latin Exemplum in England.” In The Exemplum in the Early Religious and Didactic Literature of England, pp. 66-67, 74-83. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1966.

[In the following excerpt, Mosher discusses the Gesta Romanorum in the context of preceding and succeeding collections of moralized stories.]

[The] collection of fables and tales by the English preacher and fable writer, Odo de Ceritona,1compiled between 1219-21, is apparently the earliest in which fables are accompanied with moralizations. Although preachers used this collection as a source-book for illustrations, it was probably compiled to reform clerical...

(The entire section is 3638 words.)

John Weld (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Weld, John. Introduction to ”Gesta Romanorum”: A Record of Auncient Histories Newly Perused by Richard Robinson (1595). Delmar, N. Y.: Scholars's Facsimiles & Reprints, 1973.

[In the following excerpt, Weld accounts for the disjunction between the written tales in the Gesta Romanorum and their oral versions.]

The Gesta Romanorum, a collection of allegorized stories compiled in the early fourteenth century, was one of the greatest—and longest enduring—popular successes of all time. “No other production of the middle ages, the Golden Legend excepted,” wrote Professor J-.Th. Welter, “enjoyed a parallel success”...

(The entire section is 2602 words.)

Shirley Marchalonis (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Marchalonis, Shirley. “Medieval Symbols and the Gesta Romanorum.The Chaucer Review 8, no.4 (spring 1974): 311-19.

[In the following essay, Marchalonis argues that symbolism in the Gesta Romanorum stories is externally imposed rather than internally developed.]

Since the theories of D. W. Robertson, Jr., were first proposed, their validity has been the subject of much scholarly discussion.1 It seems unlikely that any more can be said about Robertson's ideas in general statements; what is needed now are systematic and painstaking attempts to apply the theories to specific works of medieval literature. In this paper I would like to...

(The entire section is 3990 words.)

R. J. Lyall (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Lyall, R. J. “The Sources of The Thre Prestis of Peblis and Their Significance.”The Review of English Studies XXXI, no. 123 (August 1980): 257-70.

[In the following essay, Lyall argues that the fifteenth-century Scots poem The Thre Prestis of Peblis, was not influenced by the Gesta Romanorum, as crtiics who interpret it as a harbinger of humanism, rather than an echo of medievalism, have argued.]

The fifteenth-century Scots poem The Thre Prestis of Peblis1 is a composite of three linked tales, involving no less than seven narrative elements. The first, the basic narrative framework, concerns the carousing of the...

(The entire section is 6202 words.)

Timothy R. Jackson (review date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Timothy R. Review of “Gesta Romanorum,” I: Untersuchungen zu Konzeption und Überlieferung; 2: Texte, Verzeichnisse, by Brigitte Weiske. Speculum 71, no.2 (April 1996): 503-04.

[In the following review, Jackson summarizes some of the major ideas in Weiske's study of the Gesta Romanorum.]

In the Gesta Romanorum we have the most popular collection of exempla to have been produced in medieval Europe. That popularity is attested by our knowledge of some 270 Latin manuscripts, not to mention a substantial corpus of versions in English and German. The tradition extends down through early printings to Cammerlander's reworking of the text in...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

Geoffrey R. Hope (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hope, Geoffrey R. “Tales of Literacy and Authority in the Violier (1521): The French Gesta Romanorum.Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance LIX, no. 2 (1997): 353-63.

[In the following essay, Hope examines the French translation of an assortment of tales from the Gesta Romanorum.]

The Gesta Romanorum is an anonymous collection of moralized tales in the exemplum tradition identified with Franciscan and Benedictine preaching orders in England and southern Germany1. It reached a wide European readership in a great many manuscripts mostly in Latin that begin around the early 14th century2. The first imprints...

(The entire section is 5528 words.)

Diane Speed (essay date 1999)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Speed, Diane. “Middle English Romance and the Gesta Romanorum.” In Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, edited by Rosalind Field, pp. 45-56. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999.

[In the following essay, Speed catalogs a series of motifs that appear both in the stories of the Gesta Romanorum and in medieval romances.]


Amongst scholarly efforts to locate both individual Middle English romances and the amorphous entity ‘Middle English Romance’ in shifting generic discourses, one recurrent topic has been the parallels observable between certain romances and the Gesta Romanorum, ultimately...

(The entire section is 4836 words.)

Amanda Mabillard (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Mabillard, Amanda. “Sources for The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Online, 2000.

[In the following essay, Mabillard explores Shakespeare's use of the Gesta Romanorum as the basis of the three caskets motif in The Merchant of Venice.]

There are many possible texts that Shakespeare could have used in constructing The Merchant of Venice, and while we can confirm that he relied upon two particular sources, the others sources I will mention were likely, though not definitely, influences on Shakespeare. His chief source was a tale in an Italian collection...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

James D. Johnson (essay date 2001)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, James D. “Walter W. Skeat's Canterbury Tale.The Chaucer Review 36, no. 1 (2001): 16-27.

[In the following essay, Johnson shows how Chaucer scholar W. W. Skeat used a tale from the Gesta Romanorum as the basis for an additional tale he composed for The Canterbury Tales.]

All Chaucerians are familiar with the scholarly publications of the Reverend Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912).1 Although Skeat ranged widely in medieval studies—producing numerous editions of Old and Middle English texts and writing a seemingly endless stream of articles and notes—some of his most significant work was in Chaucer studies. Skeat did much to...

(The entire section is 5729 words.)